Since the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, a number of scientists have investigated the impact of the virus on many volume and urban crimes in different parts of the world as well as in the cyber-space (e.g., Ashby 2020; Campedelli et al. 2020; Gerell et al. 2020; Lallie et al. 2021). Moreover, several studies have considered the challenges posed by the possible reactions of OCGs to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., Dellasega and Vorrath 2020; GITOC 2020a). These studies on OCGs mostly investigate various types of social and institutional vulnerabilities, and they outline possible future scenarios on the basis of theoretical reasoning and the observation of macro trends such as the drop in international migration or the increase in coronavirus-related phishing frauds. However, empirical studies investigating organized criminal activities are rare, as the observation of OCGs’ actions is difficult, sometime impossible, in such a short period. The specific topics investigated by the few available studies are quite various ranging from the provision of illegal governance to the evolution of OCGs’ criminal activities. In terms of geo-political focus, most studies concentrated on Latin American countries; while only an analysis considers a different area: the Western Balkans.
Bruce et al. (2020) examine how different forms of territorial control have been enforced by drug trafficking gangs and paramilitary groups during the COVID-19 epidemic in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Their results indicate that neighborhoods with a strong presence of drug gangs have had fewer casualties attributable to COVID-19 than have neighborhoods where the government has de facto control. By contrast, COVID-19-related deaths have been higher in neighborhoods controlled by paramilitary groups. Bruce et al. (2020) interpret their results in light of the fact that militias’ profits are likely more affected by restriction orders, while drug gangs’ profits depend little on the income of the population living in the areas under their control. Hence, the opportunity cost of implementing social-distance measures has been higher for militias than for drug gangs.
The provision of illegal governance is at the center also of the study by Gomez (2020), which focuses on Colombia and Mexico. Gomez (2020) reports different episodes of provision of illegal governance (e.g., distribution of food, money, medicines, face masks, organization of checkpoints) by OCGs in the periphery of Medellín and in several areas of Mexico. The study underlines how criminal groups have been more effective than the public institutions in providing solution to local communities and reflects on the severe impact that this fact may have on the legitimacy of the legal governments of the two countries.
Whether the COVID-19 pandemic has had any effect on the activities of drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico City is, instead, the research interest of Balmori de la Miyar et al. (2021) and colleagues. To proxy OCGs’ activities, they focus on kidnapping, homicides, and extortions while the study does not investigate neither illegal governance nor infiltration of the legal economy. Their event-study analysis indicates no effect on kidnapping and homicides. The rate of extortions also did not change during the first seven weeks of observation; then, it declined in weeks eight and ten. The result then suggests that OCGs in Mexico City maintained similar activity levels during the pandemic.
Finally, on the basis of content analysis of legal acts, strategic documents, academic papers, media reporting, official documents, and interviews with police officers and representatives of civil society organizations, Djordjević and Dobovšek (2020) have investigated how COVID-19 has impacted crime and crime-fighting in the Western Balkans. The authors show that, in the first nine weeks of the spread of COVID-19, the Western Balkans experienced a small rise in the price of cannabis, ecstasy, and amphetamines, which remained available; by contrast, the supply of heroin decreased. The impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking in the area was, instead, hard to establish.
The foregoing review of the available academic studies on OC and COVID-19 indicates that empirical attention to OCGs’ provision of illegal governance has been marginal, whilst OC’s infiltration of the legal economy has not yet been investigated. Moreover, studies analyzing OCGs’ reactions to the pandemic are few, which leaves several issues open for exploration. In particular, those regarding the groups that have exploited the opportunities given by COVID-19, and the means they have used to provide illegal governance and infiltrate the legal economy. Against this background, the aim of the current study is to investigate what kind of opportunities does the COVID-19 outbreak offer to OC, and what strategies do OCGs use to exploit them.
While most criminal groups are relatively small, flexible, and engage in illegal activities for monetary gains, others seek to also exercise influence on the communities of which they are part (Paoli and Vander Beken 2014). Five organizations, often labeled ‘mafia-type OCGs’, are classic examples of the latter form of OC. They are the Russian Mafia of the 1990s, the Italian Cosa Nostra and ‘ndrangheta, the yakuza in Japan, and the Triads in China (Lo and Kwok 2017; Reuter and Paoli 2020; Varese 2014). These OCGs do not merely exploit the weaknesses of states; instead, by enacting or performing state-like activities and privatizing the provision of services, they also acquire a political component (Arias 2006; Gambetta 1993). Most powerful Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, Neapolitan Camorra, as well as structured criminal organizations in Brazil, Colombian, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom, also exert control over their territories, albeit to a lesser extent and with limited governance capability (Arias 2006; Aziani et al. 2020a; Brophy 2008; Campana and Varese 2018; Cruz 2010; Reuter and Paoli 2020).
In their study on non-state governance in Sub-Saharan Africa, Raeymaekers et al. (2008) observe that crises, although destructive, can bring opportunities and change, creating new emergent orders once the situation has stabilized. This may be the case of COVID-19 and governance-type OCGs. The medical, economic, and social disarray caused by the pandemic creates the possibility for OCGs to strengthen their local political influence. Because criminal governance relies on the relation and interaction between the (absence of the) state and OCGs, the difficulties faced by Governments in mitigating the negative impact of the pandemic may favor OCGs. Indeed, irrespectively of its providers, when governance is perceived as fair and effective, it can acquire legitimacy (Felbab-Brown 2017; Lessing and Willis 2019). In turn, greater legitimacy brings direct benefits for OCGs (e.g., greater acceptance of protection payments) and eventually supports them in their competition with legal institutions for state-making (Aziani et al. 2020b; Felbab-Brown 2017). Conversely, we expect to find at most few incidents referring to less stable criminal organizations/collaborations or inward-looking criminal groups which neither aspire to nor are capable of performing forms of illegal governance in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Besides governance ambitions, criminal organizations have also the need and the capacity to infiltrate the legal economy in different ways for the purposes of laundering the proceeds of their illegal activities, logistically supporting those activities, and expanding their sources of income (Levi and Soudijn 2020; Paoli and Vander Beken 2014; Savona et al. 2016; Savona and Riccardi 2015). The COVID-19 pandemic provides OCGs with new opportunities to expand their infiltration. Indeed, the crisis has exposed numerous businesses to a severe shortage of capital. In the absence of sufficient and ready-to-obtain public subsidies, these businesses may be at greater risk of criminal infiltration (Stephany et al. 2020). More fragile economies are those where we expect OC infiltration to be higher because less solid companies and businesses operating in the grey economy have greater difficulties in obtaining loans from legitimate financial institutions. The banking system may not be able and willing to support struggling businesses because of increased systemic risk as well as their specific risk of loan default. On the other hand, OCGs can compensate for the higher risks because of the high liquidity at their disposal, often lent with usurious interest rates, and they can be more effective than legitimate financial institutions in debt recovery by trespassing the boundaries of legality (Lavezzi 2014; Scaglione 2014).
Opportunities have arisen not only in the private sector. By relying on corruption practices and political connections, OC may indeed infiltrate public procurement in order to illicitly obtain public funds (Caneppele et al. 2009; Pinotti 2015). Specifically, observation of past socio-economic crises shows that a large number of OCGs have been able to appropriate recovery funds, stimulus packages, and other public subsidies (Fukushima 1995; Monzini 1999). For example, this has frequently been the case of earthquakes in Southern Italy (e.g., those in Belice in 1968, Irpinia in 1980 or Abruzzo in 2009). On those occasions, Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and other OCGs took advantage of reconstruction works to obtain public procurements and subsidies, and to strengthen their grip on local businesses and markets (Monzini 1999; Parrinello 2013; Riccardi et al. 2016). This is of importance because already in the first month of the pandemic, the distress caused by the spread of the virus and by the social distancing measures induced the governments of several countries to plan unprecedented injections of liquidity into their economies (Rizwan et al. 2020). Two are the main contributing factors to the risk of embezzlement: the sheer amount of disbursements and the need for rapid action. The latter, in particular, may result in relaxed scrutiny on the use of funds. Urgency, in fact, may hinder the ability of governments to devise and activate proper public procurement policies, thus increasing the risk of criminal misappropriations.
In accordance with the previous literature on OC, we expect to find evidence of the ability of most structured groups to misappropriate public funds on a large scale by taking advantage of the massive injection of liquidity in the global economic system induced by COVID-19. On the other hand, we expect to find little to no evidence indicating that unstructured groups and criminal enterprises are able to infiltrate the legal economy and misappropriate of public funds. Indeed, as observed by von Lampe and Blokland (2020) with respect to criminal outlaw motorcycle clubs, unlike governance-type OCGs, less structured criminal groups have limited capacities to misappropriate of public funds due to their lack of connections in the upper-world.